Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Sorting Author Mail

Most of my publishing career was in sales but I spent about a year as an editor at Penguin USA.   I learned many things during that time, of which the oddest was the snobbish rivalry between editors of literary fiction and popular fiction, also sometimes manifested as hardcover books vs. paperback books.   The latter sometimes occurred on the sales side too but that is another story.  Or three.

One day I heard the editorial assistants had been told to spend a Friday afternoon dealing with fan mail.  They were bribed with pizza and soda to do this about twice a year.  I offered to help which surprised them but won me a few friends.
Several huge boxes of mail appeared and were dumped onto a conference room table.  We each took a handful and started to go through it.   It was completely amazing the way people sent letters and, based on how they were addressed, even more surprising they reached us at Hudson Street.

Letters arrived to romance authors no longer published (or never) by New American Library/Topaz, the mass market division of Penguin, for which I worked.  Letters that had the title of the book (some very generic) but no author, which some of these assistants might have recycled without researching, had my stern eye not been on them. There were no laptops or smartphones then so questions on older books required leaving the room and trying to look up the answer.  The irony was that the older editors who had institutional memory were too arrogant to help out.
There were many letters addressed to Stephen King and Catherine Coulter, two of our biggest authors at the time.  Those were easy to separate.  I remember one addressed to Black Like Me (no author) which I remembered reading in my elementary school library, a nonfiction book by white journalist John Howard Griffin recounting his journey in the Deep South of the United States, at a time when African-Americans lived under racial segregation.   He was long deceased by this time but NAL/Signet had published the paperback which was still in print.  No one else in the room had even heard of this book and were surprised when I told them how Griffin changed the color of his skin to do research for the book.
Did you know Lois Lenski illustrated
the first book in 1963?
Quite a few were addressed to Encyclopedia Brown or Donald Sobol although at that time the books were published by Random House.   It reminded me that once the third-grade class of a boy I babysat had been assigned to write to their favorite author.   Everyone wrote to Donald Sobol except precocious Patrick - who had been reading Goodbye to All That and wrote to Robert Graves!   Guess who was the only one to get a response?   Now you know why!
My favorite was one addressed to Black Beauty with a drawing of a horse on the envelope!  Now, what parent or teacher would encourage a child to write to a 19th-century horse?  There was no return address or I would have sent a 'neigh' back to the sender.    It reminded me of my first week at Bantam Doubleday Dell when I was put to work answering fan mail for Sweet Valley High.   The most frequent question was: "I'd like to attend Sweet Valley High with Jessica and Elizabeth.  Please tell me where it is so I can get my parents to move there!"
The moral of the story is to do some research before you communicate with an author or assign such a project to a class.  These days many authors have websites that include a way to reach them.  If that is not the case, my recommendation is to address the letter to:  "Complete Name, Author of Title, c/o Royalties Department, Name of Publisher, Address of Publisher, including zip code."   A lot of publishers have moved in recent years so don't rely on the address in the book.  The publicity department knows how to reach current authors but the department that pays royalties is more likely to have accurate records for backlist authors.


TracyK said...

That is a very interesting post. Were these just letters that had to be researched or were all fan letters dealt with only once a year? It actually sounds like a fun task, but I guess without computers it could be tedious. When I was young (and without computers), I enjoyed doing research.

Davida Chazan (The Chocolate Lady) said...

Great post. I find it hard to believe that people would mix fact with fiction so easily, but I guess it happens more than we know!

CLM said...

I think the obvious letters like to Stephen King and Paul Auster went right to the appropriate editor or publicist so the box of pending mail was more obscure. I thought it was kind of fun but I remember when I offered to help, my editorial assistant (a sullen young woman from Brown) thought I just wanted a slice of pizza! The hierarchal lines were clearly drawn at Penguin! And pre-internet or very early days of internet, it would have been harder. I recall they did this twice a year. The mailroom was not that interested in accurate delivery: in my first job there I worked from home so when they got a letter for me my name was unfamiliar. When I got promoted and moved into an office, a letter suddenly appeared, from a college acquaintance, dated over a year earlier!